As the public policy guy for the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore is used to being asked about religion and politics. But this year, with voters facing two presidential candidates most of them dislike, the most common question he’s getting shocks him.
“What I expected the primary question to be from evangelicals is: ‘What do we do in terms of voting in November?’ That hasn’t been it. It’s been: ‘Does this mean America is under the judgment of God?’ “ Moore said. “There’s a kind of person for whom every year seems like an end times novel. This year has even sober-minded people feeling they are in an end times novel.”
From Christians and Jews to those who follow psychics and ancient civilizations like the Maya, the bitter political chaos of Campaign 2016 has some of even those who Moore calls “sober-minded” wondering if its causes are entirely secular. Could there be some divine or cosmic force behind the fact that the last two candidates standing to run the world’s superpower are the least-liked White House contenders in American history? After all, every faith tradition has an end times story - or stories - which typically includes societal turmoil.
What’s going on in American politics 2016, for some, definitely qualifies. That includes people who earnestly study scriptures for clues and many more who are only comfortable - in public, anyway - going so far as saying something akin to: “Hmm, this sounds familiar.”
That is often followed by a nervous laugh.
While most U.S. Jews take an empirical, secular view about why things happen, Messianism is all over Jewish scripture, speaking of certain things that will happen to indicate “the birth pangs” of the messiah. Those include “the proliferation of chutzpah, audacity, gumption, impudence . . . and not the good kind!” said Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. “The proliferation of chutzpah - I can’t help but think of Trump!”
Suhaib Webb, a Washington imam who fields 100 inquiries a day from young Muslims in particular, said the end of times is “so important” that it’s mentioned - implicitly or explicitly - on every page of the Koran. Muslims aren’t to think of themselves as active players in something only God can control - an axiom meant to protect them from cults. However, Webb said, the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said “when trust is lost and the ignorant become your leaders, prepare for the hour.”
“Whenever I see Trump, I think of that!” Webb said with a laugh.
The idea that God - or whatever divine force one believes in - has an opinion on national politics and is meting out judgment on it goes back to, well, God.
Since Barack Obama entered the White House some opponents have suggested his presidency was evidence of the anti-Christ, including for his decision to support and advance same-sex marriage. Famed evangelist Billy Graham once quoted his late wife Ruth as saying, as she contemplated America’s loosening attitudes on technology and sex: “If God doesn’t punish America, he’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” In 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
Ideas about the end times aren’t remotely limited to Abrahamic faiths. All major spiritual communities “share a pattern that the world will end in some combustion, some fire, and out of that will come some phoenix,” said David Carrasco, a Harvard Divinity School historian of religions who focuses on ancient Mesoamerican communities such as the Aztec and the Maya.
Some Buddhists teach that there are cycles of stages, including the later one called “mappo” in which people become corrupt and can’t understand the dharma, or teachings of the Buddha. It includes a government you can’t trust, Carrasco said. The Mayans believed the world runs in very long cycles and that when we are shifting from one to another there can be enormous turmoil.
Carrasco said he sees Trump deliberately trying to tap into people’s anxieties about the election, terrorism and instability by evoking millennial language.
“People feel like: ‘My God, how will we decipher the danger we’re in?’ Humans need seers, holy people, and you hear this in Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s saying: ‘We’re in the most dangerous, darkest times.’ “
Danielle Egnew, a psychic who speaks and consults on the paranormal, drew hundreds of thousands of views to a May YouTube video in which she described the high anxiety as a completely reasonable reaction to one 100,000-year-long energy cycle falling away and another one rising.
The Maya, the Hopi and other ancient belief systems, she noted, described these cycles. A “masculine” one is ending and a “feminine” one is rising - causing a ton of stress, especially to a male-dominated globe.
“While others have been utterly gob-smacked by the rise of a character like Trump, his success is no secret to those of us who track energy signatures for a living,” she wrote on her blog in a March item titled “Why Donald Trump is the best thing to ever happen to the USA.”
In an interview, she called this era one of a “huge spiritual shift. It’s exciting but it feels weird and scary. We are shaking off the limited consciousness of the 20th and 19th centuries. Everyone in the world is experiencing this shift to the feminine - look at the outbreak of ISIL, and the oppression to the feminine. You’re seeing this unbelievable burst, this effort to try and control it. It’s almost like you’re trying to sweep out this old consciousness that can’t sustain itself and it’s dragging by its fingernails.”
The thing is, even if you’re open to end times thinking, there are many views on two key areas: whether they are brought about by extremely negative things or extremely positive ones, and whether human beings can seek to play a role or are in fact - as Webb described - explicitly forbidden from that.
Moore, an evangelical Protestant theologian of the country’s second-largest Christian group, said Jesus warns followers not to believe someone who says he has returned, “because it happens suddenly, like a thief in the night.” That said, there have always been major waves of millennialist thinking among evangelicals.
Moore said the many people who raise this topic with him aren’t “confidently connecting the dots” and changing their lives because they’re sure the end times are coming. “It’s more a lament.”
More liberal believers, Raskin and Webb noted, are more likely to read (in their cases, Jewish and Muslim) scripture to say humans have a responsibility to repair the world.
Muhammad, Webb said, is believed to have said “if the day of judgment starts now and you have a seed in your hand, plant that seed” - be more altruistic, he said.
But many Americans shaking their fists at the political awfulness playing out on CNN or Fox News aren’t tempted even privately to wonder whether God is sending a message.
“I don’t think God has anything to do with this. Years and decades of injustice and a crumbling education system have led to where we are now,” said the Rev. Amy Butler of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan. “It well may be the end of our country, but if it is, it will be our fault.”